Birmingham is creating its first park since Queen Victoria was on the throne. Graham Young inspects progress on a new oasis in the heart of the city
The relentlessly wet weather in 2012 could hardly have been more challenging for the already under-pressure construction industry.
But in Birmingham, work to complete the city’s first purpose-built park for 125 years is bang on target regardless.
To help gauge progress on the ambitious development, the city council’s project manager Jim Wilson and Wates Construction project manager Aidan Smith took me on a walk around the embryonic site.
Steel capped boots – tick. Hard hat – tick. Hi-vis jacket – tick. Protective glasses – tick... never have I been so well protected for a simple walk in a park.
First, though, there was an opportunity to put Eastside’s strategic importance into perspective.
And that meant heading up to the roof of the nearby four-star Hotel La Tour.
It’s the bird’s-eye view from this new vantage point on Albert Street which illustrates the park’s purpose.
Looking from here towards Vauxhall and Duddeston, you can see the bulky 21st century monolith that is Millennium Point to your left.
The Jennens Road complex is now bookended by the Matthew Boulton campus of the Birmingham Metropolitan College and the Birmingham Ormiston Academy (BOA) on its city centre side and by new buildings going up for Birmingham City University (BCU) further out of town.
To the right of Millennium Point, which includes the Giant Screen Cinema (formerly IMAX) is what is fast becoming Eastside Park itself.
To the right again, The Woodman Pub (now owned by the City Council so hopefully to be saved) and Curzon Street Railway Station.
Roman-inspired and the world’s oldest surviving piece of monumental railway architecture, Philip Hardwick’s Curzon Street building received its first train from London on September 17, 1838.
Disused since the year England won the World Cup in 1966, it’s a miracle that the Grade I listed edifice is still standing 46 years later in a city that is not only forever on the move in one respect but seemed rooted in old ways while allowing the Edwardian Island House next to the Hotel La Tour to be flattened earlier this spring.
For both Mr Wilson and Mr Smith, the contrasting positivity involved with masterminding such a significant park project has been a really enjoyable experience.
If a somewhat challenging learning curve, given that nobody is still alive from the Victorian era when Jim says Highgate Park was the last major park to open in Birmingham.
Mr Wilson’s background is in the housing department while Mr Smith trained in joinery after leaving school and was most recently working on a very urban project like The Cube next to the Mailbox.
Both men have enjoyed getting their heads round the challenges of how to prepare urban, post-industrial land for new shrubs and trees, walkways and even an underground drainage system that will soak up water at times of heavy rain.
Towards the Masshouse end of the park are raised terraces, which will add visual texture to the development as well as providing raised seating for people to watch events. Electrics are being installed to power potential developments like Christmas markets and small shows.
“Things like this will help to bring the park to life,” said Mr Wilson.
“There will be a small plaque for the late Coun Ken Hardeman (the cabinet member for regeneration when he died in July, 2007) who was behind the scheme when Clive Dutton was the strategic director.
“Eastside has been a real team effort and that’s exciting – it’s not me delivering it.”
The site will have 309 trees in total including oak and scots pine and 200 have been planted so far.
Some are ‘pleached’ trees with square edges, because Mr Wilson said designer Andrew Taylor wanted the park to have ‘defined edges’.
There will also be a spine path from Masshouse to Cardigan Street.
In between the park and Millennium Point, will be Thinktank’s newly-opened Science Garden and a forthcoming under-sevens play area, neither of which have come under the city council / Wates umbrella operation.
The original plans for Eastside Park were much more expensive than the current capital cost of £11.75m,
The reduced price was achieved thanks to a redesign after minds were focused by the combined effect of the credit crunch and the need to accommodate the outline plans for HS2.
Mr Wilson said the city council has guaranteed there will be two park keepers covering for each other as well as helping to ensure that vandalism is kept to the bare minimum.
“The key to reducing graffiti is to remove it within 24 hours,” he added. “And we want to develop a local Friends of the Park group, too.”
Married to midwife Helene and a father of four children aged from 16 to 25, Mr Smith said: “I’ve become really interested in how and when you can plant shrubs and trees.
“We are working to achieve the quality that the client, the city and ourselves deserve – HS2 will make this side of the city truly amazing.”
A former pupil of Archbishop Ilsley School who went on to run his own business for a while, Aidan puts his own personal success down to being “open to change and being adaptable within the industry.
“I’m 50 now, but still learning. You learn something every day of the week.
“And Wates is a great, forward-thinking company to work for. I love getting up and coming to work in the morning.
“This is the type of project that you feel lucky to be involved in.”